Rory McIlroy manages change, rust at The Players

Rory McIlroy-MRI-back injury (Peter Casey / USA TODAY Sports)

Rory McIlroy manages change, rust at The Players

PGA Tour

Rory McIlroy manages change, rust at The Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – With so many changes in the life of Rory McIlroy since his last tournament, it would be fair to deflect some blame for a grind-it-out, opening round of 1-over 73 Thursday at The Players Championship.

Rory, was it the new TaylorMade equipment?

“I mean it was definitely more the user of the equipment than the equipment today.”

What about your recent wedding?

“If there was any weight on anyone’s shoulders, it was [McIlroy’s wife] Erica; she was the one stressing over the wedding. I was like, it’ll be fine.”

Not even that shiny new silver ring on your hand?

“I made sure to hit balls before we got married just to make sure that I could play with it on.”

A more logical explanation would be the exacting nature of TPC Sawgrass, which had McIlroy scrambling and head-shaking his way through a back nine that featured two double bogeys. Playing in mid-90s temperatures with two more scrambling stars – Dustin Johnson (1 under) and Justin Thomas (1 over) – McIlroy played the final three holes 2 under to keep himself in the mix.

“I was a little rusty out there,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I turned a 75 or a 76 into a 73, so it wasn’t all bad. But yeah, I didn’t hit enough fairways, didn’t hit enough greens.”

The trouble started in earnest on No. 10, when McIlroy attempted to casually tap in a bogey putt from 2-and-a-half feet. The ball came straight left off the putter, missing the hole and leaving another 1-and-a-half feet coming back for double bogey.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’d better mark the next one,’ ” McIlroy said.

He made that, but the issues continued as McIlroy made his way around the back nine. An iron over the green approaching the par-5 11th and a drive into the water on No. 14 prompting the second double-bogey left the world’s second-rank player at 3 over.

If the course was getting to McIlroy, it never showed. A more recognizable Rory finished the round with birdies at the par-5 16th and treacherous par-4 18th.

“Felt like I was scrambling all day,” McIlroy said. “But I scrambled pretty well, and I birdied two of the last three holes to make it somewhat respectable.”

Speaking of respectable, McIlroy’s worst finish in his last four starts at The Players is T-12, an impressive feat given the democratic nature with which this course distributes good (and bad) rounds. He’ll need that consistency tomorrow if he has designs on playing into the weekend. Good news for Rory fans: Last year, he came out and shot a 64 on Friday.

There’s one thing McIlroy won’t want to change.

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